Through the fog steamed our yacht, Mahalia, sliding down gray ocean swells. The gale that had kept us in port for three days in the Chatham Islands, east of New Zealand, had blown itself out, and banks of sea mist lolled in its wake. A fogbow formed on the horizon, and through its bright arch albatrosses rose and fell in an endless roller-coaster glide. Ahead, the mist thinned to reveal a fang of rock rearing 570 feet out of the sea: the Pyramid, the sole breeding site of the Chatham albatross. Around its shrouded summit the regal birds wheeled by the hundreds, their plangent wails and strange kazoo-like cackles echoing off the black volcanic slopes.
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The Mahalia's skipper lowered an inflatable dinghy and ran me ashore. Fur seals roused themselves to watch our approach, then, taking fright, tobogganed into the sea. The skipper positioned the craft against a barnacled rock face—no mean feat in the six-foot swells—and I jumped, gripping rubbery stalks of bull kelp and pulling myself up to a jumble of boulders. Sidestepping the fetid pools where seals had been lying, I scrambled up to the only level part of the island, an area about the size of a tennis court, where Paul Scofield, an ornithologist and expert on the Chatham albatross, and his assistant Filipe Moniz had pitched tents, anchoring them with three-inch-long fishhooks wedged into crevices in the rock.
A few feet away a partly fledged Chatham albatross chick stood up on its pedestal nest, yawned and shook its shaggy wings. Then it flumped down with the stoical look one might expect from a creature that had sat on a nest for three months and had another month or two to go.
Around the Pyramid colony adult albatrosses were landing with a whoosh, bringing meals of slurrified seafood to their perpetually hungry offspring. When one alighted near the tents, Scofield and Moniz each picked up a shepherd's crook and crept toward it. The bird tried to take off, its wings stretching some six feet as it ran from Moniz. A swipe with the crook, a bleat of protest, and the albatross was apprehended, snagged by the neck.
Moniz cradled the bird, keeping a tight grip on its devilishly hooked bill, while Scofield taped a popsicle-size GPS logger—a tracking device—between its shoulders, spray-painted its snowy chest with a slash of blue for ease of recognition, and released it. "One down, 11 to go," Scofield said. He and Moniz were planning to stay three weeks on the Pyramid, and they hoped to deploy the devices on a dozen breeding adults to track their movements at sea.
Scofield, of New Zealand's Canterbury Museum and co-author of Albatrosses, Petrels and Shearwaters of the World, has been studying albatrosses for more than 20 years. To research these birds is to commit oneself to months at a time on the isolated, storm-lashed but utterly spectacular specks of land on which they breed: from the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean, to South Georgia in the South Atlantic, to Campbell Island and the Snares Islands in New Zealand. Scofield has visited most of them.
Studying albatrosses is also not without risks. In 1985, the yacht taking Scofield to Marion Island in the South Indian Ocean was rolled twice and dismasted, 700 miles south of South Africa. Jury-rigged, the yacht limped to its destination. Scofield and the crew stayed on Marion with other albatross researchers for five months (they had planned on only two days) while waiting for a ship to pick them up. Another time, during a ferocious storm in the Chathams, Scofield and his colleagues had to wear safety harnesses bolted to the rock as they slept in their tents, in case a wave washed over their campsite. Albatross eggs and even adult birds were bowled off their nests by the wind, and Scofield observed more than one parent try to push an egg back onto the nest with its bill—a challenge analogous to rolling a football up a flight of steps with your nose.
Scofield and other albatross researchers return year after year to their field studies knowing that albatrosses are one of the most threatened families of birds on earth. All but 2 of the 21 albatross species recognized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature are described as vulnerable, endangered or, in the case of the Amsterdam and Chatham albatrosses, critically endangered. The scientists hope that the data they gather may save some species from extinction.
Albatrosses are among the largest seabirds. The "great albatrosses," the wandering and royal albatrosses, have the widest wingspans—ten feet or more—of any living bird. These are the birds of legend: the souls of drowned sailors, the harbinger of fair breezes and the metaphor for penance in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner: "Ah! well a-day! what evil looks / Had I from old and young! / Instead of the cross, the Albatross / About my neck was hung."
A wandering albatross is a "regal, feathery thing of unspotted whiteness," wrote Herman Melville. They look white in flight, but even the wanderers have a few darker feathers on their wings, and many of the smaller species have varying combinations of black, white, brown and gray plumage.